Are contact tracing apps a time bomb for civil liberties violations?

You didn’t install it. Apple and Google did it for you. According to the BBC, COVID-19 contact tracing is now baked into iOS and Android operating systems.

This new functionality alerts users to when someone near them has tested positive for COVID-19. When a user enters close proximity to an infected individual, they are sent a notification. What could go wrong?

Let’s remember that even though we’re in a pandemic, doctor-patient confidentiality still remains relevant today. According to the ancient Oath of Hippocrates (circa 400 B.C.), which doctors still hold themselves to:

Whatever, in connection with my professional service, or not in connection with it, I see or hear, in the life of men, which ought not to be spoken of abroad, I will not divulge, as reckoning that all such should be kept secret…

…Those things which are sacred, are to be imparted only to sacred persons; and it is not lawful to impart them to the profane until they have been initiated into the mysteries of science.

This is a fancy way of saying that when a patient seeks out the care of a doctor, they are assured that no one else will know their diagnosis.

Why is this important? Because without confidentiality, there can be no trust between a doctor and patient. Without trust, a potential patient will not seek help. Without help, sicknesses can spread.

But isn’t contact tracing opt-in and voluntary?

Apple and Google have assured us that nobody’s privacy is being compromised, that to make use of contact tracing functionality, users must enable it. Even if we take their assurances at face value, I have to wonder—who would want to admit they have COVID-19 to random strangers?

Like it or not, illnesses still carry social stigmas, especially when those illnesses are infectious. There’s a reason why many people keep their medical status private. Why would someone with COVID-19 be any different?

COVID-19 has provoked hate and violence. Asian communities across America and Canada report a rise in racist behaviour towards their communities. Can we trust bigots to be socially responsible with contact tracing apps? How will they react when they receive notifications that someone, in close proximity, has COVID-19? Why would anyone volunteer to be a potential victim of violence—all while simultaneously dealing with a deadly virus?

Contact tracing is here to stay

It might be tempting to think that after the pandemic ends, things will go back to normal—but normal is not coming back. Welcome to the new normal, which includes contact tracing.

Already, beyond COVID-19, contact tracing is being applied to other circumstances. As we pointed out weeks ago, protests (in response to the murder of George Floyd) provoked authorities to contact trace protestors who were exercising their free speech—this is not okay.

As demonstrations continue to take place all over the world—it is incredibly unsettling to know that protesters (who are taking part in calling out the police for systematic racism and violence) can be traced by… the police.

What Apple and Google have installed on our phones is a time bomb for civil liberties violations.